The forces driving democratic recession
Democracy, it turns out, is difficult to promote at the end of a gun.
Liberal democracy is in retreat across the globe. Following decades of expansion since the 1950s, the spread of democracy hit a wall in the new millennium. Freedom House, using carefully crafted metrics, has measured a decline in democracy and freedom worldwide. Definitions are important: Does the fact of elections, even where the outcome is autocratically determined, qualify a country as a democracy? By most measures and definitions, there are now about 25 fewer democratic countries than there were at the turn of the millennium. Founding co-editor of the Journal of
Democracy Larry Diamond wrote a 2015 paper, "Facing up to the Democratic Recession." Diamond asks, reasonably enough, "Why have freedom and democracy been regressing in many countries? The most important and pervasive answer is, in brief, bad governance." But this tells us very little. How and why has governance been so bad?
Diamond's Stanford colleague, Francis Fukuyama was once so confident that democracy had definitively defeated its two main rivals, fascism and communism, that he famously stuck his neck out claiming "the end of history." This year, 2017, Fukuyama stated in an interview with Edward Luce, author of the just published book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism,
"Everything I've been working on for the past year suddenly feels trivial. The only topic I can think about is the future of liberal democracy."
Fukuyama fears that the global democratic recession may turn into a global democratic depression.
There are a number of reasons, not just one, for the recent democratic recession. With Luce's help, I'll enumerate a few, but toward the end, I'll take issue with Luce and others regarding the influence of artificial intelligence technologies on the future of work, employment and politics.
Globalization, Immigration, Populism and Inequality
As Luce and others have noted, these four phenomena are interrelated. Part of globalization is about trade, but when people as well as goods cross borders, whether as travelers or refugees, then lives are touched and customs challenged. As is clear from both Brexit and Donald Trump's victory, part of the pressure toward populism comes from lower- and middleincome, less educated people who feel their lives and jobs are threatened by immigrants and low-wage workers in other countries. To repeat myself yet again, for the rich, the world is their oyster; for the poor, the world is their competitor.
Hillary Clinton may well have lost the election as a result of her use of a single word: deplorables. In England, they call them "the left-behinds," a phrase that figured centrally in a column not about England but about Islam and the postColonial legacy in Asia. When the gap between rich and poor yawns wide, when the middle class gets hollowed out, when economic insecurity strains the social contract, then populists call for a strongman to stand up to the corrupt elite, and democracy suffers. Luce quotes American sociologist Barrington Moore: "No bourgeoisie, no democracy."
Though Luce doesn't lump them together as I do here, he captures the pace of change over recent decades in three different fivefold increases: "Since 1970, Asia's percapita incomes have increased fivefold." "The asset value of the world's leading billionaires has risen fivefold since 1988." "Following China's WTO accession in 2001, America's trade deficit with China has leapt almost fivefold." These three fivefold increases are not unrelated.
While the four phenomena under this subtitle – globalization, immigration, populism and inequality – are tightly interrelated in self-reinforcing feedback loops, there are other factors behind the democratic recession that can be identified more discretely.
The Iraq War and Its Legacy
Luce doesn't mince words: "It is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did to America's global soft power – and to the credibility of the West's democratic mission."
And the damage continues: "[I]n the eyes of the Islamists, Trump has simply dropped the pretense. The West was always at war with Islam. Trump has removed the mask. At a moment when ISIS is on the military retreat in Iraq and Syria, Trump has made their drive for fresh recruits much easier."
Democracy, it turns out, is difficult to promote at the end of a gun.
China and the Economic Recession
These two phenomena are importantly linked precisely to the extent that undemocratic China did not suffer economically nearly as much as the world's democracies. Is there a lesson here for countries in Africa, where none qualify as effectively functioning democracies and many are receiving aid and investment from China?
Luce quotes Andrew Nathan, a leading China-watcher: "By demonstrating that advanced modernization can be combined with authoritarian rule, the Chinese regime has given hope to authoritarian rulers everywhere."
So, to briefly summarize Luce before taking issue with what he has to say about technology, all of these factors, not just one, have come together to create a kind of perfect storm for democracy: globalization, immigration, populism, inequality, the Iraq War and its legacy, China, and the economic recession. These are some of the reasons for the "bad governance" that Diamond invokes.
The Threat of Technological Unemployment
Luce is hardly alone in noting that new technologies, particularly robots with artificial intelligence (AI), pose a greater threat to low-skilled workers than do foreigners. "The latter-day effects of globalization have shaken Western solidarity. The future of artificial intelligence poses challenges that are likely to be orders of magnitude greater."
Orders of magnitude greater? Granted, the newest wave of automation poses a threat to employment in ways that earlier technological advances did not, but accurately estimating the scale of the threat is important. Why? Because of the connection between (un)employment and populism:
“Europe and America's populist right wants to turn the clock back to the days when men were men and the West ruled. It is prepared to sacrifice the gains of globalization – and risk conflict with China
– to protect jobs that have already vanished. Populists have little to say about automation, though it is a far larger threat to people's jobs than trade."
When I say that Luce is not alone in his fear of what artificial intelligence can do to eliminate jobs, I'm thinking not only about figures like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, who have voiced their fears about AI, but also the fascinating and very popular work of Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and, just recently, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
Like Luce, Musk and Hawking, Harari is alarmed at the prospect of technologically caused unemployment. But Harari's rationale is even more radical. Taking the very long view from 70,000 years ago in his first book, in his latest volume he contemplates a not-too-distant future featuring nothing less than the obsolescence of humanity as we know it.
The stakes for politics are high: "When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism."
Harari's books are thought-provoking. No wonder they are popular. The writing is witty and often perceptive. But like Luce, I think he seriously overestimates the potential of artificial intelligence and therefore also overestimates the degree of its threat to democracy.
Harari draws on a particular strand of techno-utopian post-humanist literature that is more controversial than he makes it sound. According to some but hardly all researchers in Silicon Valley, there is certainly nothing like a soul inside the brain. Not even a mind. Not even a self. According to some, but hardly all researchers, we are nothing but stacks of algorithms running on wetware rather than silicon. Harari buys into the computational metaphor for how the brain works, but the computational metaphor is contested by many, from philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle to anthropologists like Terrence Deacon and polymath genius inventor of virtual reality Jaron Lanier, whose book You
Are Not a Gadget states its thesis in its title. The debate between humanists and posthumanists is profound. It is ultimately about what it is to be a human being. Is there something special about us? If not a soul, then something else? What differentiates us from other animals? Or from our computers?
Answers to such questions have political import because they touch on issues of human dignity and human rights, and/or the rights of animals. Given his eagerness to demystify humanism, it's not surprising that Harari is much preoccupied with the suffering of farm animals.
But Harari presents us with too stark a choice when it comes to our understanding of ourselves as human beings: Either we buy into the new religion of humanism and use it to stoke the old religious fires, OR we accept a scientific materialism that robs the world of all transcendent purpose and meaning.
An Alternate Path?
But there is a third way. The science of emergent systems, particularly Deacon's big book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind
Emerged from Matter, offers an up-fromthe-bottom, perfectly naturalistic account of how purpose and meaning come to be in a universe that, prior to the emergence of life, was utterly without purpose.
Again, why is this such a big deal, and therefore why are the questions raised by Harari so important? Think of this third
It is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did to America's global soft power – and to the credibility of the West's democratic mission.
path of emergence as a philosophically profound and scientifically respectable response to the deep anxieties of the "deplorables" and "left-behinds." Their old time religion is under siege in the new world. They are suspicious of science and evolution. They have a basic intuition that there is something wrong with the scientific and godless values of the elites, and in an important sense they are right. The artificial intelligence-driven, posthumanist future promoted by Ray Kurzweil and others is a cold, cold place.
Harari criticizes thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker who on the one hand embrace the coldness of the computational metaphor for mind but on the other preserve a humanistic warmth by performing, "breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century [with] … Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson."
“However once the heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we – or our heirs – will probably require a brand-new package of religious beliefs and political institutions."
High stakes indeed. We owe Harari a debt for drawing out the potential political implications of artificial intelligence technology. Fortunately for most of us, AI is not as smart as Harari makes it sound. Fast, yes. Massively capacious, for sure. But as Searle and Deacon show in different but definitive ways, the "intelligence" achieved by AI is something quite other than human intelligence. We may not be obsolete all that soon. So our current package of religious beliefs and political institutions may last us longer than Luce or Harari would have us believe.
US President Donald Trump
The landmark statue of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad in April 2003